Stories From Hardcore Bodybuilders
By Greg Merritt Flex
Maybe you puke. Maybe a groan that’s more like a scream escapes your contorted maw, a cry for help unanswered. Maybe you lie spent on the gym floor, drenched and dazed and numb, knocked down by the self- imposed barrage. Or maybe the torment is evident only in your unwavering glare — eyes that seem to peer through concrete, but attest to the focus inward, to your lonely journey further and further through the pain barrier. Different men breach that barrier in different ways. In selecting the hardest-training bodybuilders of all time, we accepted no limits on philosophies or styles. Each pushed himself to new heights in virtually every workout, whether with maximum weights, reps, intensity or volume. Keep a bucket handy, because you may feel queasy as we count down the ultimate metalheads — the top 10 greatest iron warriors ever.
#10: CASEY VIATOR
(Pro: 1979-82; plus one masters show, 1995) The mercurial man-monster who placed third in the 1982 Mr. O is an apt choice to kick off our top 10, because at various times, Viator employed three distinct volumes — low, mod- erate and high — but he perpetually pushed himself to new realms. As the first disciple of Arthur Jones, Viator helped popularize high- intensity training in the 1970s and outlifted the Mentzer brothers, his frequent training partners. By the early ’80s, his volume had spiked — a typical leg workout was squats, leg presses, hack squats and leg extensions, all for 8-10 sets of 20-30 reps. Whether he did 4 sets or 44, Viator applied his blue-collar work ethic to every session of agony.
“I worked hardhat jobs. Hard work makes you feel alive. When you give your all, everything you’ve got, you can feel yourself literally growing — physically, mentally, spiritually.” -Casey Viator
#9: ROY CALLENDER
The third-place finisher in the 1978 Mr. Olympia was the ultimate volumizer. Workouts could take as long as six hours, and he often went several weeks without a rest day. Most current pros don’t even train forearms; Callender did 24 sets twice weekly, and that was his briefest routine. One sample back workout consisted of up to 85 sets and over an hour hanging at the chinning bar. What’s more, he wasn’t pumping lightly. Most sets stayed in the moderate range and often went to failure, and he perpetually pushed his strength. No pro consistently trained as hard for as long as the marathon iron man from Barbados.
“Four hours, six hours, I go till I’m done. I never think about the end, only the next set. I want to know the muscle has been completely exhausted before I call it quits.” - Roy Callender
#8: RICH GASPARI
The Dragon Slayer didn’t just smite bigger bodybuilders. He conquered weights bigger bodybuilders didn’t dare approach. He still does. As an unknown teen, Gaspari was squatting seven plates (675 pounds), and 26 years later and long retired from the stage, we watched the 46-year-old CEO of Gaspari Nutrition knock out front raises with 105-pound dumbbells (see “The Dragon and the Dragon Slayer” in the October 2009 issue of FLEX). In the years between, the three-time Olympia runner-up pushed Lee Haney onstage and in the gym. With workouts that combined maximum weights with intensifiers — such as drop sets, supersets and negatives — The Dragon Slayer waged war with iron.
“I’ve always made everything a competition, and that includes every workout. I try to train heavier or harder, or both, every time I walk through the gym doors. If I don’t, then I wasted a workout. I lost — and I really, really hate to lose.” — Rich Gaspari
#7: DAVID HENRY
Doggcrapp is a training methodology that involves maxi- mum weights for minimum volume. Working sets of 11- 15 reps are pushed beyond failure via rest-pause and sometimes static contractions. Upping the pain quotient, bodyparts are often finished off with a single high-rep set called, ominously, a widowmaker, and postworkout stretches are taken to agonizing extremes. Henry was just another undersized ex-middleweight when he entered the pros in 2004, but within two years, he had transformed himself via DC torture sessions into a 200-pounder vying for pro titles. He brings his logbook to each workout and tries with all his might to top what he did before, regard- less of the internal torment.
“Pain means growth. I ignore it. It’s just there. There’s no fear. I’m not going to let the weight beat me. I’m going to move it, and for more reps than ever before. No surrender.” -David Henry
#6: CHRIS CORMIER
Upholding the balls-to-the-wall tradition of the mecca — Gold’s Gym in Venice, California — is Chris Cormier. At his strongest in the ’90s, Cormier’s arm and leg pushing force was the stuff of legend: inclines with 525 pounds for two or 200-pound dumbbells for eight; 1,200-pound leg presses for 30; 675-pound squats without even a belt; 900-pound reverse hack squats for 10. More than once, he continued without pause after losing his preworkout protein and as blood streamed from his nose and vertigo spun the gym — ignoring all caution signs, running every red light. For nearly a quarter century, this West Coast warrior’s work- outs have been the real deal.
“I know people have a misconception, because I laugh a lot and like to have a good time, but in this gym, I’m a beast. Come play with me in here and see how funny that **** is.”— Chris Cormier
#5: RONNIE COLEMAN
Just as you can argue that Coleman is the greatest bodybuilder ever to tread earth, you can argue that he is the strongest of all time. His exploits are legendary: parking lot lunges with 365 pounds across his shoulders for 100 yards (gravel surface); 800-pound squats and deadlifts; 585-pound barbell rows. FLEX was there during a sweltering August when he was repping out T-bar rows with 645 pounds and the handle broke. The weight “tapped out” before he did. But it wasn’t just his phenom- enal strength that earned Big Ron a spot in our top five. It was also that he could have trained anywhere any way, but he remained in MetroFlex — a primitive Texas open-air gym — using mostly free weights, hitting each bodypart twice weekly and toiling twice daily. Well into this century, Coleman kicked it old school.
“Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but don’t nobody want to lift no heavy-ass weights.” — Ronnie Coleman
#4: JOHN DEFENDIS
If there were only one name on our honor roll that you didn’t recognize, this would be it. After all, the 1988 NPC USA winner competed only twice (unsuccessfully) in the pros, and that was before some of you were born. He never made it to the Olympia stage, but no man who ever posed in the O withstood harder, longer workouts than DeFendis. As the greatest proponent of Steve Michalik’s aptly named “Intensity or Insanity” system, every routine was an unflagging barrage. Fifty sets of barbell curls. Done. A hundred sets of inclines. Yep. A typical leg day was 400-pound squats; 1,200-pound leg presses; 300-pound leg extensions; and 15-30 reps each, in sequence, sans rest, over and over again, 25 or 30 times — whatever it took to leave partners in a heap. DeFendis’ seemingly endless tribulation sessions were the epitome of intensity and insanity.
“There are few who can go into a gym and train till the onlookers drop with exhaustion. My goal was always to tire out the people who peered from the treadmills. Be the last one standing; that’s what it’s all about.” — John DeFendis
#3: BRANCH WARREN
Warren recounts a leg workout he did when he was 18: some inhumane amalgamation of 100-rep leg extensions, 25-rep leg press drop sets and a reverse pyramid of hack squats that ended with 450 pounds for 50. Afterward, unable to stand no matter how hard he tried, he crawled upstairs to a “dirty, nasty bathroom,” where he puked, and then collapsed. It was 45 minutes before he could stand again. As he says, “We used to do insane stuff like that just to see if we could do it. I was the only one who could.” Seventeen years later, combining mind-bending poundages at a rapid pace — often in the torrid Texas heat — Warren still wills himself to do what others can’t. The Bulldozer is the hardest-working man in bodybuilding.
“Take no prisoners. I come to the gym to work. When I go, I go all out. That’s the whole point. Heavy, free weights. I go to failure in every working set I do, and I accept no limits.” — Branch Warren
#2: DORIAN YATES
During his six years atop bodybuilding as Mr. Olympia, The Shadow’s success spoke to the efficiency of high-intensity training and the precise execution of carefully plotted workouts. Photographer Kevin “Hardcore” Horton recalls that when he was shooting Yates in the dungeonlike Temple Gym and wanted to capture the same exercise from a different angle, it was a no-go. Yates couldn’t fake it. He had successfully completed his one working set and refused to repeat even a single rep. Horton had to get the shot next time — a week later. The Shadow was as strong as he looked, regularly underhand row- ing over 400 pounds for 10, but every set had a preplanned purpose. The ultimate HIT man, Yates did his minimal quantity with maximum intensity, going to failure and beyond via forced reps, negatives and rest-pause — often in the same sequence.
“By retreating into myself, I’m eliminating any and all distractions, and I’m focusing totally on what I’m in the gym to do. To many, that approach may appear too intense, but as far as I’m concerned, you have to cultivate training tunnel vision.” — Dorian Yates
#1: TOM PLATZ
He would not give in. He refused to admit defeat. When he couldn’t get another rep, a training partner lent helping hands. When he couldn’t get another full assisted rep, he did halves. When he couldn’t go half way, he did quarters or even less — barely moving, but keeping the blowtorch on his cells until every last one admitted defeat. Platz, who finished third in the ’81 Mr. O, is noted foremost for his legs and for the brutalizing workouts that built him. Weighing under 230 pounds, he squatted 635 pounds for 15, 350 pounds for 52 and 225 pounds for 10 minutes straight — presumably not in the same workout, but with him, anything was possible. What’s less known is that he brought the same “never give up” ethos to other bodyparts. Whether at the squat rack, the chinning bar or the incline bench, Platz would not stop until his muscles did.
“When I say, ‘Your life passes in front of your eyes,’ I mean you go to the point where you get 10 reps, and then somehow you manage to get 15 or 20. It’s just conjuring up the deep-rooted emotions, passions and energy that you have within your body, your soul and your mind to push the weight up one more time and one more time and one more time.” — Tom Platz
HARDCORE HONORABLE MENTIONS
These 10 (in alphabetical order) were edged out of our ultimate honor roll, but few could match their workouts at their peaks.
■ JOHN BROWN (Pro: 1984-91) J.B. was noted for his strength, as well as his relentless giant set barrages.
■ FRANCO COLUMBU (Pro: 1972-81) Competing at under 200 pounds, this two-time Mr. O benched 500-plus, squatted 600-plus and deadlifted 700-plus, training twice daily and hitting bodyparts thrice weekly.
■ JAY CUTLER (Pro: 1998-present) This Mr. O three- timer moves, plowing through maximum sets in minimal time.
■ MAT DUVALL (Pro: 2004-present) Early in his career, this “Beyond Failure” proponent used forced reps and drops to get many more reps after failure than before.
■ DERIK FARNSWORTH (Pro: 2005-present) Noted for leg- day feats such as squatting 405 pounds for 30, the smallest man on our list turned pro as a lightweight who dominates super-heavy weights.
■ MIKE FRANCOIS (Pro: 1994-97) The ’95 Arnold champ deadlifted 800 pounds, and always sought both power and mass.
■ JOHNNY FULLER (Pro: 1981-87) Sixty sets for quads, 70 sets for chest — it seemed no workout was too long for this enigmatic Englishman.
■ IAN HARRISON (Pro: 1993-98) He upped the intensity of his Herculean sets by pre-exhausting bodyparts.
■ JOHNNIE JACKSON (Pro: 2002-present) With lifts including 800-pound deadlifts and 100-pound side laterals, Branch Warren’s old training partner is even mightier than he looks.
■ CHUCK SIPES (Pro: 1966-67) A proponent of power bodybuilding via low-rep sets, he was probably the all-time strongest Mr. Universe.